By ZACK KLEMME
MOREHEAD It’s hard to predict how basketball teams will handle extended layoffs.
But for Ashland, the eight days between their 64th District final loss and 16th Region Tournament quarterfinal were all good.
They allowed senior Nick Miller, who missed much of the latter part of the regular season with back trouble, extra time to get back to full strength. He scored 21 points, 17 of them in the first half, as the Tomcats beat East Carter 59-38 on Saturday night in Ellis T. Johnson Arena.
“Whenever I came in against Boyd (Feb. 28 in the district final), it was my second game,” Miller said. “I think (I had) maybe three or four practices, and I was definitely a little rusty. Eight days helped us all.”
The Tomcats (21-9) advanced to the semifinals of the region tournament for the eighth straight season. They did so by hitting 21 of their 37 shots — a scalding 56.8 percent — and holding the Raiders (15-14) to 14-for-49 shooting, or 28.6 percent, and 17.9 percent in the second half.
“I thought our defense was outstanding tonight,” Ashland coach Buddy Biggs said. “I thought we did a great job chasing shooters off the (3-point) line, and rebounding. I think we were plus-14 on the glass. Those were the big keys.”
Steven Friley cleared 16 of Ashland’s 36 rebounds. Damantie Thornton added 13 points, all in the second half for the Tomcats.
Friley and Miller comprise a significant size advantage for Ashland over East Carter that the Tomcats couldn’t exploit in a 61-60 loss to the Raiders Jan. 28 in Grayson.
They also played better defense Saturday than in that game.
“We improved on our defense a lot tonight,” Thornton said. “Last time we played (East Carter), we were jogging and everybody looked gassed, and today I think our defense was a lot better, and we finished a lot more.”
Ashland’s bigs also successfully avoided serious foul trouble Saturday, unlike in some contests this season.
“We wanted to call (Miller’s) number early and often,” Biggs said. “I thought he responded and did a great job tonight. Played one of his better halves for us tonight.”
Subsequently, the Raiders couldn’t account for everything Ashland could do.
“When we let (Miller) get those easy ones there to start the game, he really got in a rhythm, got to feeling it, and that makes it tough on you,” East Carter coach Brandon Baker said. “In the second half, we really paid more attention to him, but that just opened up lanes for other guys, and they took full advantage.”
Connor Greene paced the East Carter attack with 16 points.
The Raiders were within 34-28 on Greene’s bucket with 3:48 left in the third quarter, but Ashland reeled off seven straight points and held East Carter scoreless for more than three minutes.
Thornton scored the last five of those points, and the Raiders never got closer than nine after that.
“Ashland forced us to shoot poorly,” Baker said. “But it was just a tough night for us. Any time the ball doesn’t go in, it makes all the other aspects of the game that much more difficult. That’s the way it was tonight.”
Nevertheless, Baker said his team exceeded outside expectations this year.
“We were one of the final eight to play here, and that’s a credit to the team, how they handled the season,” he said. “They didn’t accept the perception of what everybody thought about them, and they had two big wins there in the district tournament. They’re 62nd District champs, and I’m proud of them for that.”
Awaiting Ashland is Greenup County, which shocked Rowan County 60-54 earlier Saturday.
The Tomcats beat the Musketeers 48-47 on Dec. 17 in Lloyd. One thing Biggs and Miller both noted is that Ashland does not hold nearly the size advantage over Greenup County as it does East Carter.
“It’s gonna come down to rebounding,” Biggs said. “A little easier said than done outrebounding those guys (Greenup County’s Jair Jackson and Brandon Johnson). We can’t replicate that size (and) we can’t replicate that jumping ability. So we’re gonna have to do another great job on the glass and either get even or get ahead.”